Writer Spotlight: David Shugars

Like Robyn, I’m here dancing on my own with David Shugars of The Demon Collective, Vol. 1, to talk about his adventure Hush, RPGs in general, and the future of GMDK.

DAVID: This is weird. Introduce yourself.

DAVID: I’m David Shugars. I’m a 27-year old nonbinary writer, graphic designer, and the legal founder of GMDK.

That’s an interesting name. What’s the meaning behind it?

Well, David is biblical, there was this guy…

You know what I mean.

Yeah, yeah. So, ages ago (like July 2018) Mabel Harper organized a discord server for collaborators on her big vampire book. We had talked via G+ before, but that was our first real collaboration. It’s also where I met Comrade, Camilla, Fiona, and the magnanimous Sean McCoy, who was a real guiding force in my decision to get into publishing.

Anyways, the name. So, the discord was called “A Server Full of Demons” because Mabel’s blog was called A Blog Full of Demons. As we were the only ones in the server, that made us demons. As the channel grew and talk began branching out beyond the vampire project, “Good morning, demonkind” became a sort of regular greeting: you wake up, say good morning, and chat about gay RPG things in between working on whatever else you had going on. “Good morning, demonkind” eventually got shortened to GMDK, because we can’t read, and also it’s phonetically “GM Decay” which is sort of what we’re going with in this whole endeavor: breaking down the standard RPG tropes and conventions to make newer, cooler stuff.

Brilliant. What are you doing for this project?

Well, my adventure is called “Hush.” It’s a dungeon-crawl through an ancient dwarven library filled with ghosts, awful bugs, and a very hungry caterp-er, basilisk. It’s something I’ve been working on for a while–one of the very first adventures I ever wrote, I had planned it for an old campaign, but we never got around to playing it at the time.

It started with wanting to make a module that was more “survival horror” than what was on the market. Problem was, it’s really hard to do horror when PCs have limitless resources and prep time, and I didn’t want to have them all beaten up and thrown into a pit without their weapons either.

Reasonable; that seems like a very lazy way to start an adventure, much less a campaign spanning levels 1-15.

I don’t understand that last point, but it doesn’t matter. So, if you can’t take away the PCs time, you can’t take away their agency, and you can’t take away their equipment, what do you do? You take away their senses. Hush is about crawling through a dark maze, deaf and nearly blind, while being hunted by a creature that you cannot and must not look at. It’s a classic negadungeon: the winning move is not to play. Good luck convincing PCs of that, though.

You’re also doing the layout and design for the book, right? What’s the plan with that?

Zines are cool in that you can break every rule of design and still be on-brand. I won’t be doing that, though, because I like my books to be readable. Instead, I’m working closely with Lauren Bryce (our terrific artist) to coordinate the art and design in ways that looks good and scans better. The book is black and white, in the most literal sense: Laurens’ work is heavy and relies on stippling to provide shading, so there’s no actual gray anywhere. It’s gonna be breathtaking.

The Pale Grubs infest every corner of the library, and now they’re in your browser! oooooh~

The Kickstarter has been a great success, and it’s looking like you’ll hit 600% by the end of the funding period. This gives me hope for the future of GMDK, do you feel the same way?

I do, David.

Is there anything you can tell us about upcoming projects that lovers of The Demon Collective might be interested in?

Our editor, Fiona Geist, is working on two of her own adventures right now, illustrated by Joan-Rose Gordon and Evlyn Moreau, respectively. I’ll be publishing an English translation of Vivien Feasson’s post-apocalyptic story game, Liberté, likely sometime in July. Scrap Princess and I have been working on PlaneScrap for nearly two years now, so if you’re looking for dimension-hopping weirdness, stay tuned for more of that.

Oh, and Vol. 2 of the Demon Collective is all but assured. Maybe we’ll do a single megadungeon this time, with each person designing a floor. Or perhaps a big hexmap with each person designing factions that control certain areas. Either way, there’s clearly a market for collaborative content, and I’m happy to corner it until someone better decides to muscle me out.

I’m sorry

David Shugars is on twitter. You can read his blog posts here, where you’re already at.

Writer Spotlight: Mabel Harper

Another round of interviews! Let’s talk to the inimitable Mabel Harper about her adventure, She’s Not Dead, She’s Asleep, one of four modules included in The Demon Collective, Vol. 1.

DAVID: How would you like to introduce yourself?

MABEL: I’m Mabel Harper, a musician, writer, graphic designer, and trans Filipina woman with a bad case of being extremely online. I’m also a game designer who specializes in horror, vampires, old-school D&D, and spells that turn dicks into snakes.

How did you first get involved with tabletop RPGs?

I’d see Dungeons & Dragons referenced in TV shows and cartoons, and I was already familiar with the D&D Capcom fighting games. So I really wanted to play, but I couldn’t afford any of the books. So, what I did instead was, when I was in 4th grade and we had indoor recess, I would run my own imagined version of the game for my friends using the dice from the board games that we kept around class. After months of doing that, when by birthday rolled around, I begged my mom to buy me what I think was the 2004 D&D Basic game set. The following Christmas, I asked for the Player’s Handbook, and the rest is history.

What inspires your games, the ones you play and the ones you run?

Things that go bump in the night. Monsters, imagined or real (and how they’re not really that different). The deconstruction of power fantasy. Communism. Transfiguring the painful and confusing aspects of our shared existence into something we can more easily process‌—‌and punch, if necessary.

How do those themes play into the dungeon you’ve written?

I mean, it’s an adventure about looting a bunch of old, pale monster nobles that hoard riches and possess dark powers that can easily turn you into a monster if you’re not careful with it (which players, by their nature, never are). I love seducing players with the potential for power and riches, and then dealing with the dangers and fallout inherent to that journey. I hope there’s a lesson to be learned from that… but also, if not, it’s a kickass dungeon with vampires.

Most creators seem driven to design the sort of dungeon they’d like to run. If you could distill your GMing style down to a single sentence, what would it be?

I try to meet my players where they’re at and have the world react accordingly‌‍‌—which usually means chaos.

Outside of RPGs, what would you say is the biggest influence on your creative process?

Black metal taught me to totally immerse myself within an aesthetic. I actually don’t really listen to or make that kind of music all that much these days, but I’ve carried that same sense of aesthetic commitment into everything I do, whether that be really sensual pop music or gritty-ass dungeon crawls.

I don’t know how RPGs have changed the way I’ve approached music, but I will say the worldbuilding that goes into tabletop RPGs is impressive as hell. I think I’m a way better worldbuilder for something like Form and Void because of how much time I’ve spent poring over RPG tomes as a child. a lot of these thick-ass RPG books are so good at putting you in a different place, with entirely different myths, histories, and societies. It’s hard to estimate just how influential they’ve been in that regard. I can’t extricate that component from my creative process. It’s that ingrained.

Okay, last one: are there any other creators who are making the sort of thing you want to see more of?

Is it cheating if i say everyone in the zine we’re putting out?

It is.

Okay, okay. Well, there are a bunch, but i wanna specifically focus on Zedeck Siew, who makes amazing southeast Asian-inspired horror and fantasy. his book with Mun Kao, A Thousand Thousand Islands, whips ass. it’s so evocative and really puts you in this whole other world that its creators very intimately know. and they help you get to know it too.

Mabel Harper is on twitter, has a gaming blog called Blog Full of Demons (Patreon), co-creates a web serial called Form and Void (Patreon), and makes music under several labels, notably Don’t Do It, Neil and NO ANTI. She’s also a freelance writer and designer.
The Demon Collective, Vol 1. Kickstarter ends March 2nd.

Writer Spotlight: Comrade Pollux

Today we’re talking to Comrade Pollux, one of the writers for the Demon Collective, Vol. 1. His own module, Bad Faith, is a gory hack-and-slash adventure set in and around a desecrated church and the village it has come to infiltrate.

DAVID: So how would you like to introduce yourself?

COMRADE: Hi, I’m Comrade Pollux. I like D&D, cheesy fantasy, and socialism.

What can you tell us about the dungeon you’ve written? What inspired it?

My dungeon is about murdering cultists who have started warping reality around their base (and are also trying to murder you). I’ve always been fascinated by cults and secret societies, both as trope-y fantasy enemies and as real organizations with the capacity to do lots of harm. I’ve lived in areas with fair amounts of Klan activity, and the town I went to high school in is home to a church that makes millions of dollars a year “teaching” faith healing to foreign nationals. A lot of that money they use to influence the city government, donating hundreds of thousands to the police and stuff like that. Needless to say, I find that pretty scary, especially since there’s not really anything else in the region that can compete with them economically.

Less depressing inspirations include Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the very first RPG I played and quite possibly my favorite to this day (though the dungeon is hardly something that would fit into a WFRP game). That’s probably where I first really got into the cult as an enemy. A big tonal influence for me is 90’s-era CRPGs and FPSs. I love DOOM and Daggerfall to death. More specific to this dungeon is the game DUSK, which was really the spark that helped me tie together a bunch of ideas which have been floating around in my head for a while. 

That’s really interesting. What is it about WFRP that makes it your favorite?

Well, a great deal of it has to do with nostalgia and happy memories, no doubt. I’m sure I’d still like it if I have the patience to play a game as crunchy as WFRP these days. Now, I knew a little bit about D&D before I played WFRP, mostely from reading play reports and Order of the Stick and things like that, and WFRP just seemed a lot more real to me a lot of ways. I was an edgy teenager and I dug that it was A GRIM WORLD OF PERILOUS ADVENTURE, but the budding historian and medievalist in me used the Old World’s caricatured nations as a gateway to learning about their historical counterparts. The problems that you’re expected to face as a character in WFRP–poverty, corruption, mental illness, bigotry, and yes, shadowy cults–also seemed a lot more applicable to my own lived experiences than the problems that D&D of the day presented.

The murderous Zedekiah lurks in the catacombs beneath the old church, the secret cult’s worst-kept secret.

I’ve never played it, but that all makes sense to me. What system do you play the most now?

These days I mostly play my own homebrew B/X OSR thing, currently called Dagor Dagorath. It’s been four years in the making, and my group just had our 99th session. I can pretty safely say that I’ve stolen stuff from pretty much every OSR blogger that has ever existed at this point, so if you have a blog and you’re reading this, thanks! Keep writing and keep rolling.

If you could distill your gaming style into a single sentence, what would it be?

“Roll the dice and see what happens (it probably involves mutilations).”

That’s something to be respected. There’s been lots of talk about RPGs as art lately. What’s your take on that? Is there anything you think tabletop games do better than other forms of creative expression?

I absolutely agree that RPGs are art. I think the thing RPGs do better than any other artistic medium is allow a group of people to create and inhabit a highly-interactive shared imaginary space. As I write that it sounds obvious, but I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity to create deeply meaningful experiences that’s being overlooked. Books and films have Lore, but RPGs can have History. I read about these campaigns that have run for decades, and I think that’s just the coolest thing, because pretty much everything worth telling about these games is stuff that actually happened in a way that isn’t true of other types of art. You can get similar experiences in MMOs like EVE Online, but even those are about a particular thing in a way that RPGs don’t have to be. You can have games that start out as a dungeon-crawl which then evolve into political hijinks, or a game about merchant caravans, or maybe you discover lost alien spaceships and now you have a sci-fi thing, or all of these in different orders and combinations, because the only limitation on the nature of the shared space is the imagination of the people playing.

Is there anything you’d like to see catch on in the greater gaming community?

Apart from reading tons of blogs I tend to keep to my own gaming group, so you may want to take these thoughts with a grain of salt.

This hobby is an incredible way to forge friendships, so I think we should strive for eliminating barriers to participation both as a player/referee and as a creator/publisher. Partly this is a problem of access: there’s a ton of games I want to play but can’t afford, and the patterns of life under neoliberalism are not exactly conducive to being able to hold a regularly scheduled game unless you’re really devoted, making it harder to get new butts in chairs. There’s also a cultural problem: you don’t have to look far to hear stories about minorities being harassed in our community, which still largely trends white, straight, male, and cis.

Neither of these things are really isolated to us as gamers, however. So I guess you could say what I’d like to see catch on in the greater gaming community is the abolition of capitalism and an end to oppressive hierarchies. Those things belong in make-believe worlds, not the real one.

Also the dice they use for Dungeon Crawl Classics are really cool. We need more sizes of dice.

Last one: which writers/artists are you most excited to see more from?

Anything by anyone who wrote, illustrated, edited, or produced for this project, for one. I feel awed and honored to have my work included alongside theirs. Broadly speaking, I’m interest in fresh perspectives in gaming, either from marginalized communities or simply people who are writing for the first time. There are a few OSR bloggers which have influenced me a great deal–Arnold K of Goblin Punch, Skerples of Coins & Scrolls, Delta of Delta’s D&D Hotspot–and I always look forward to anything they put out. I absolutely have to plug my brother, who runs the blog Profane Ape and is a regular in my own campaign. If you like my stuff, you’ll probably like his.

Finally, to tie this to my thoughts on the nature of RPGs as art, I’m just looking forward to what my own players throw at me. They’re artists as much as I am.

Comrade Pollux can be found on twitter, and runs a gaming blog called Kill Your Dungeon Master.
The Demon Collective, Vol 1. Kickstarter ends March 2nd.

Writer Spotlight: Camilla Greer

One of the founding demons of our order, Camilla Greer is here to talk about her module Night School, for The Demon Collective, Vol. 1.

DAVID: How would you like to introduce yourself?

CAMILLA: My name is Camilla, I’m a 27 year old trans woman who works at a board game store in DC. I’ve been playing RPGs for a decade and a half, most seriously in the last three or four years.

How did you get started with tabletop RPGs?

One summer I was on a camping and hiking trip with a friend and his family. When we camped out, he would pull out his 3rd edition PHB, and I my character sheet for Orguk Bloodbane, half-orc barbarian. I still think it’s the perfect place to play D&D.

Ooh, tell me about Orguk.

Classic half-orc barbarian. Swings a big greataxe, loves to drink, fight, and break bones. Shallow as a puddle, but still the archetype I have the most fun with.

Nothing wrong with shallow! Are you playing anything currently?

Yeah! Right now I’m playing in an ongoing beer and pretzels game my roommate runs, as well as a more in depth campaign, both currently 5E. I also GM a lot. In some state of activity, I have a GLOG campaign, and a Black Hack 2e game set in the Ultraviolet Grasslands. I also get to run lots of one shots for friends, I’m ramping up for Princecon in March, and I get to run lot of D&D at the store, for kids and adults.

Any tips on introducing new players/kids to D&D?

Gosh, lots and lots. Lemme see if I can come up with some bullet points.

  • Stay in the fiction. Instead of “can I roll Investigation” have them say “I look around the room, checking for signs of struggle.” It allows you to handle rules, helps them stay in that position of imagination, and encourages them to try things that aren’t written on their character sheets.
  • Let them breath. D&D is all about developing this feedback loop between what the player do, what interests them, and what the DM is providing in response. Newer players don’t have muscles for that, so making sure that every player gets a chance to respond and show you how they feel about what’s happening helps you learn what they want, and hopefully provide that for them by the end of the night.
  • Roll in the open. This one is very much a personal style, but I feel that rolling publicly, admitting when I’m making things up on the fly, etc. makes the casual nature of the activity very apparent, and helps people relax. DM screens are also just like, pretty weird for people who aren’t familiar with them?

I guess those are my biggies. The only way to get better at anything, especially RPGs is to just do it as much as possible. Run as often as you can, for whoever you can, even if it’s not the perfect group, or your adventure isn’t perfectly prepped. My general motto in life is “fail until you don’t.”

That’s excellent advice, thanks for sharing. Can you tell me a little about your Demon Collective adventure?

Yeah! It’s a single site adventure, around a manor falling into ruin. The players will encounter brainwashed proctors who run the place, abducted children trying to escape, and parasitic flying book monsters. There are lots of ways to approach it, and it turns out different every time. It started as a adventure I ran for the kids D&D program at work, the Guild of Heroes, and I’ve expanded on it each time I’ve run it since then.

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind while running it?

Honestly, I think the adventure is fairly straightforward. Because there are a handful of different active groups or characters, keeping them from stagnating is important. Think about how their activity will present the players with interesting choices.

The Bookmites protect the children of the school, whether that’s from evil proctors or scruffy adventurers.

What do you generally look for in RPG products? Is there anything that’s really caught your eye recently?

I’m a big fan of crafting my own content. Sandbox adventures or settings that leave gaps for me to fill in is exciting. I like it when the books contain only the good stuff. I can make up a tavern or a thieve’s guild, don’t give me the details. I’m a big fan of Luka Rejec’s Ultraviolet Grasslands. Really excited for the published version of that which should be on the way soon. Mothership is also really exciting to me. It points at a genre that is both very clear in the tropes and situations that will inspire players and GMs, while somehow also being underrepresented amongst RPGs. The design of that rulebook amazes me, it’s so easy to find what I need quickly.

Camilla can be found on twitter, and has recently appeared on episode 145 of the podcast Dragon’s Demize to talk about The Demon Collective.
The Demon Collective, Vol 1. Kickstarter ends March 2nd.

Utilize the Medium

PDFs are the bastards of the RPG community: tacitly acknowledged but rarely advertised. In general, they are used exclusively only when a product is either too short or too niche to deserve a print run, and are priced as such. When put out alongside a print run, they are the byproduct of the print file process, and still treated as nothing more than an afterthought.

I think this is a mistake. While there is a definite joy in the physical book, PDFs have advantages that no book can claim, advantages that have for a long time been sorely underutilized. Our current kickstarter, The Demon Collective, Vol 1., has just hit 250% funding, and subsequently unlocked the stretch goal that allows me to give the PDF version the full white-glove treatment. Let’s talk about what that means, why it’s important, and how you can do it in your work.

What it Means to Optimize a PDF

To make it more than a Word doc with a different file type, or a digital scan of the print copy. It means to recognize the sometimes-hidden strengths of the PDF format and explicitly design for them, ideally before even starting layout. Lets start with the generals.

PDFs are portable and indestructible. You know how in JRPGs, the protagonist can stow a nigh-infinite number of potions in their pouch? You can do that with PDFs. I have dozens, if not hundreds, of games, supplements, and adventures stored online in my Google Drive, with others downloaded to my phone, tablet, and laptop for even faster convenience. I can carry a library’s worth of game books with me on my phone, a device I have on my person at all times anyways. They take up no physical space and cannot be damaged or destroyed (assuming you have backups or host them online in one of the many free sites).

Say you’ve got a game that uses the triad of RPG material: Player Book, GM Book, Monster Book. You are doing yourself and your audience a disservice if you do not produce high-quality PDFs for them. The ability to alt-tab through multiple books simultaneously on my laptop’s PDF viewer is one that I’ve used many times, and making it easy to do so is a responsibility that falls on the designer.

PDFs are responsive to the reader. Have you ever considered how much we take adjustable zoom for granted? The ability to infinitely resize a document to show us just as much or little as we need, for text to automatically refocus to ensure sharpness at all magnifications? Large-print books exist for a reason, but the market for them in tabletop RPGs is likely not enough to justify a full print run, which are capriciously profitable in the best of cases. But there are ways to accommodate the visually-impaired with a PDF that are simple, responsive, and require very little effort on the part of the designer.

PDF layers can be used to turn on/off backgrounds and visual noise to produce a cleaner page that has higher contrast with the text, making it easier to read. Typefaces optimized for print (not webfonts as, due to arcane mathematics too complicated to explain here, PDFs “draw” more legibly with print fonts) also help ensure your book remains readable at all magnifications and when printed out.

A page from Petals and Thorns: Strangers in Ramshorn. At right, the “background” layer has been turned off, resulting in a cleaner, more legible page that is also printer-friendly.

There are other ways to make your book accessible to the visually-impaired. PDF/UA (Universal Accessibility) is a badge of honor indicating that your book conforms to the highest standards of accessibility. This means being fully readable by screen readers such as JAWS (including tables and images!), having high color contrast between text, images, and background, and being properly tagged (more on that in a future article). This can be a monumental undertaking for large books with lots of information, but it’s well worth it to accommodate people who may otherwise have trouble reading and running your game.

PDFs can be interlinked. Think of this as “threading.” If you’ve got a citation or footnote directing the reader to another page, have the text link directly to that page when clicked! Better yet, if the relevant information is short enough, set up a comment that shows when you hover over the piece in the text. If you’re using Indesign to layout your document, the former can actually be done within the document (to prevent it from being undone by revisions and future exports), but Acrobat can do it from any PDF.

Because PDFs are not books, there is no reason to subject your reader to needless page-flipping. Interlink your PDF, and give it bookmarks for easy navigation to specific sections. If you look above to the previous image, you’ll notice a header that lists six different chapters. That header is on every single text page of the PDF, and each of those chapters can be jumped to immediately by clicking on its name in the header. In a book, this would be impossible, but in a PDF, it’s just practicality.

How This All Affects the Demon Collective, Vol. 1

To start, the PDF is going to be fully interlinked. The file size will be reduced as much as physically possible without reducing image quality, to take up less storage space. Backgrounds, borders, and art will all be placed on separate layers, so they can be toggle on and off at the readers’ convenience. The entire document will be PDF/UA compatible. And one more thing: there will be a specially formatted version of the PDF, designed to be printed on a4 paper and folded to make a zine. Some people have been disappointed by our shipping costs, and while we have no way of changing those, we’re determined to provide a way for our backers to create their own physical zine with minimal effort.

Stay tuned for a more detailed look at all that goes into PDF optimization, including guides on PDF/UA compliance, and a detailed rundown of everything we’re doing for The Demon Collective, Vol. 1.

How to Produce RPGs on Nothing A-Year: Fonts

How to produce RPGs on nothing a-year is a series that focuses on the technical aspect of RPG design: the layout, fonts, art, and everything else that doesn’t constitute the actual writing. In particular, we’re looking at ways to create quality products using nothing but free programs.

Today we’ll be looking at perhaps the most overlooked and underutilized aspect of RPG design: typography. Good typefaces are a hallmark of fine press books; why should fine tabletop RPGs be any different?

Before we begin, I’d like to say a word about bad fonts. Like many things in life, there are far more bad fonts than good. Bad fonts are distinguished by a number of things: poor kerning (the spacing between individual characters), a small library of glyphs (many bad fonts only support the basic English alphabet, and some don’t even have numerals), and dubious/blatantly false licensing (the thing that says you can use that font for specific purposes). There are many sites that offer free fonts by the thousands, and as tempting as these are, the vast majority of their stock will consist of bad fonts.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about good fonts, and where to find them.

Google Fonts

If you’re using Google Docs, you’d be foolish not to take advantage of Google Fonts. They have a massive repository of open-source typefaces that can be added directly to a file, and a lot of them are perfectly suited for RPG work. However, the Google Font directory was and is designed primarily for screens, and as such I would only recommend them if the finished product is presented as a PDF. If printed, many of these fonts will lose some legibility.

Editors’ Choice: Roboto, Crimson Text, Libre Baskerville, Alegreya, Fira Sans

League of Moveable Type

The League of Moveable Type is an open-source type foundry that specializes in digitizing older typefaces. Every one of their fonts is completely free to use, no questions asked, and quite a few come with alternate styles like bold, italics, or small caps, which are highly recommended for emphasizing certain pieces of text.

Editors’ Choice: League Spartan, Fanwood, Raleway, Sorts Mills Goudy, Goudy Bookletter 1911, Chunk


Out of all the free font sites, Fontsquirrel is the one I trust the most. While not everything here is free (and quite a lot of it is crap), it at least avoids pirating copyrighted fonts like other, less scrupulous sites.

Editors’ Choice: Questa, Playfair Display, Vremena Grotesk, Libre Caslon


Charis: Charis is based off of an old font called Charter that was designed for screens in the 80’s. Funny enough, it still looks great today, even printed out. Charis also boasts an incredibly large library of glyphs and extensive language support.

Cormorant: With an astounding 45 styles, Cormorant is one of the most versatile fonts you can get for nothing. I set the entirety of Kidnap the Archpriest in various shades of Cormorant.

Roboto: I mentioned this above in the Google Fonts section, but it cannot be overstated how great a font Roboto is. It’s getting closer and closer to overplayed every day, so use it while you can.

That’s it for this article; while the above typefaces aren’t perfect, they’re worlds away from Arial and Times New Roman. With a small-but-dependable arsenal of fonts, even a novice designer can produce amazing work. Check back soon for our next installment, where we’ll be talking about maps.

How to Produce RPGs on Nothing A-Year: Scribus

How to produce RPGs on nothing a-year is a series that focuses on the technical aspect of RPG design: the layout, fonts, art, and everything else that doesn’t constitute the actual writing. In particular, we’re looking at ways to create quality products using nothing but free programs.

So far, we’ve looked at word processors and typesetters, and they’ve done an admirable job with our basic little module. But what if we need something a little more powerful? To get the most out of our free RPG programs, we’ll need to look for a dedicated publishing tool, and the best free one out there is Scribus.

Scribus is as close to Adobe InDesign as you’re going to get without pay or piracy. It’s been quietly gathering momentum for the past decade and a half, to the point where the current state is very similar to paid professional programs. If you absolutely must have the most control over your layout, this is what you’ll need.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. Scribus is fiddly to the max, and has its fair share of bugs and crashes. But its method of containing every little design element in frames allows you to adjust anything, anywhere, at any time. Your text frames can be placed and resized individually to flow along with image frames. Tables can be adjusted cell-by-cell. The styles options are more robust as well, allowing for you to set custom spacing before, after, and in between paragraphs, as well as setting up drop caps and other such fancies.

However, I’m a firm believer of the right tool for the job, and for something like Tomb of the Serpent Kings, Scribus is simply overkill. Individually highlighting and changing the text styles individually took forever, and having to resize the columns manually — as opposed to LaTeX, which determines the proper size for each one automatically — took far more time than it deserved. Scribus also lacks a comment/annotation function, so while I will be providing the base files for your tinkering pleasure, the basics will be covered in this article itself.

Click here to download the .zip containing the Tomb of the Serpent Kings Scribus files.

Getting Started With Scribus

The Document Setup screen. These settings can be adjusted at any time by clicking on the “Apply settings to: All Document Pages” button.

Opening up a new file presents the document setup page. Here you can set nearly everything ahead of time — page size, margins and bleeds, page numbering, even automatic hyphenation for justified text. Measurements can be expressed in everything from inches to points (also cicero’s, which I’ve never heard of and never used). I recommend millimeters for a good balance between small adjustments and ease-of-use.


As I said earlier, Scribus handles layout by way of frames. In particular, three types of frames — Text, Image, and Shape — are the basis for nearly everything.

  1. Select allows you to, well, select frames, as well as move and resize them.
  2. Text frames are for paragraphs. They have their own submenu once placed, which will be explained in detail.
  3. Image frames can have pictures placed within them. These can also be adjusted via a submenu. (Tip: get accustomed to the “Adjust Image to Frame” and “Adjust Frame to Image” options. They make resizing a breeze.)
  4. Render frames allow you to place outside tools like LaTeX into Scribus. I’ve never found a use for it, but you’d do well to remember it’s there.
  5. Table is sort of misleading, as all it does is place a number of smaller text frames into a grid format. Though time-consuming (each “cell” has to be manually formatted, and things like lines or color fill added afterwards), it’s an important function for RPG design.
  6. Basic Shapes are your squares, circles, etc. I’m sure you can figure out what these are used for.
  7. Complex Shapes are polygons. You can set the number of corners and rotation to produce some interesting polyhedrons, but it’s not something I use often.
  8. Lines are self-explanatory.
  9. Bezier Curves are lines that you can twist and pull into waves and arcs.
  10. Freehand Lines are hand-drawn. Once again, not something I use often.
  11. Rotate and Zoom are also self-explanatory. Rotate is done on a frame-by-frame basis, while Zoom applies to the whole document view.

Text Frames


Once you’ve placed your text frame and filled it with words, you can access the submenu by pressing F2. This gives you tons of options: setting styles,  adjusting text height, width, and tracking (the spacing between individual characters), and tons of other things that we don’t have space to go into now. I recommend downloading the program and playing around with it yourself; while Scribus has an unfortunate reputation for a high learning curve, it’s also surprisingly forgiving.

Tip: you can link frames together to automatically flow text by pressing “N” then clicking the two frames. Pressing “U” will unlink them.

You’ll notice the “Style Settings” show both Paragraph Style and Character Style settings. Paragraph styles are what you’ve seen as “styles” before. They format entire paragraphs at once, and you can have as many as you want. For instance, in this version of Tomb of the Serpent Kings I have a different paragraph style for sections, subsections, basic paragraphs, lists (which need different spacing than normal paragraphs to distinguish them), and reference text (which needs to be smaller to fit into the three column text).

The Style manager, accessed by pressing F3 as default.

Character styles are different, in that they apply only to the individual characters you’ve set them to. For instance, I have a “bold” character style that I can apply to any single piece of text, regardless of its paragraph style. I also have an “italics” style, and a different version of both for use in reference text.

Image Frames

Images are a lot simpler to deal with than text. Once you’ve created the frame, you can add the image by right-clicking and selecting “Get Image…” This will open up an explorer window where you can navigate to the image file itself.

Don’t be alarmed if your image shows up weirdly distorted at first: Scribus loads images at their native size, though it doesn’t stretch the frame itself to compensate. Simply right-clicking again and selecting “Adjust Image to Frame” will automatically resize the image to fit within the frame. From there, any adjustments to the size of the frame will also resize the image within it.

Final Thoughts

We’ve only scratched the surface of everything Scribus is capable of doing, but what we’ve discussed should give you the ability to create basic documents within it. The more complex aspects — master pages, customized color spectrums, scripts — can and may be explained in further installments, but for now, the best way to learn is by getting your hands dirty.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series on layout programs. I’ve got a few more articles in the works that will deal with other aspects of design: fonts, art, maps, etc., that I hope will help any new RPG producers working on a budget to produce stunning, high-quality work. If you have any questions or comments on this article, or if you’ve used Scribus to good or ill effect, let us know in the comments below.